Nuclear Waters at the Centre of a Soviet Technocratic Culture Analysis

“In designing the water-graphite reactors used at Chernobyl’, Soviet nuclear engineers chose specific design features that made serious – albeit not catastrophic – accidents all but inevitable.”1

Soviet nuclear power plants in the vast majority of cases depended on water as a necessary and safeguarding coolant. But where should one get enough of it in such an inaccessible and land-locked landscape, encompassing steppes, forests, mountains, deserts, and arable land featuring one of the harshest continental climatic differences between summer and winter in the whole world?

For Soviet technocratic planners, this did not pose an unconquerable obstacle. Over the centuries, the country’s grand rivers, for example the Volga, Don and Dnepr have hosted numerous settlements with different industries and economical endeavours as well as some of the respective area’s biggest population centres. So why not using their immense powers for harnessing a new and even greater power – that of the mirnij atom?

Unsurprisingly, the Soviet civil nuclear programme was one of the most ambitious of the world. Before 1986, the year in which Chernobyl struck, the nuclear industry held grand prospects for further investment and development. Being a country as vast as the USSR, in which 75% of the population lived in the West while 80% of national (mostly fossil) energy resources were located in the Far East, technocratic planners envisioned nuclear power as one way to secure a stable energy supply, especially for industrial hotspots in western Russia and eastern Ukraine.2

Soviet projections in the 1980’s stated nuclear energy would be together with coal the only realistic choice for the future production of energy, leaving hydro power deliberately out of the picture.3 Facing these circumstances, the nuclear inner circle decided to turn a blind eye to possible detrimental consequences to both the natural environment and human populations, in order to reinvigorate an ailing Soviet economy to facilitate the advent of Communism.

In 1979 only 4,5% of the energy mix of the USSR actually derived from atomic electricity production.4 Instead, the country was despite developed hydro power stations fully dependent on fossil fuel and stayed so until her end.5 Economically speaking, Soviet technocrats had mobilised tremendous resources into the development of the nuclear industry in order to further diversify the Soviet energy mix. On the union-level central planners agreed to increase nuclear power production from 16 GWe in 1982 to 90 GWe in 1990 and then even further to 200 GWe in 2000, hence aiming to increase nuclear power output 12,5 times in just 18 years6. In fact, in 1990 prior to her collapse, the Soviet Union had succeeded in installing 38.3 GWe.7 Although falling considerably short of the planned goal, these numbers show how technocratic planners in the Soviet Union succeeded to implement their vision of nuclear future for their country.

But how did they use the water network to their advantage? Rivers, lakes and the sea-shore could be prepared to host nuclear power stations, but each of them had important implications for local stakeholders, such as fisheries, agriculture and local municipalities. It is both clear, that water was on the one hand the limiting factor for the construction of nuclear power plants due to the necessity of sufficient coolant, and on the other an everything connecting trans-systemic agent, which incorporated the nuclear into the Soviet socio-economic utopia. My part of the Nuclearwaters-Project strives to investigate this linkage between Technocratic Culture and water, between central planning ambitions and atomic waterways and between communist historic-materialist ideals and nature’s essence of life. Only by investigating this complex of ideology, culture and material environment scholars will come closer to understanding the Soviet nuclear industry. If we want to judge nuclear safety in Europe’s East, this is necessary.

“Science demands sacrifices.”8

Petrosyants, chairman of the State Committee for the Use of Nuclear Energy in the USSR on 6 May 1986, 10 days after the explosions of reactor 4 at Chernobyl.

1Geist: Political Fallout: The Failure of Emergency Management at Chernobyl’, p. 107.

2Semenov: Nuclear power in the Soviet Union, in: International Atomic Energy Agency Bulletin Vol. 25, No. 2, June 1983, p. 47.

3Medvedev, Z.: The Legacy of Chernobyl, New York a. London 1990, pp. 300-301.

4Margulis: Atomnaya ėnergiya i radiatsionnaya bezopasnost’, Moskva 1983, p. 125.

5CIA: USSR Energy Atlas, Washington a. Springfield 1985, p. 7.

6Vorob’ev et al.: Radiation Safety of Atomic Power Plants in the USSR, in: Atomic Energy (Vol. 54, No.4, April 1983), Luxembourg/ Berlin/ Heidelberg 1983, pp. 290-301, here p. 290.

7 [25.04.2019]). Also IAEA: Nuclear Power Reactors in the World (Reference Data Series No.2, 2018 Edition), Vienna 2018.

8Medwedew, G.: Verbrannte Seelen. Die Katastrophe von Tschernobyl, Munich a. Vienna 1991, p. 222.